UW Bothell site provides key audiences with everything that they need – and then some

Universities have become a mainstay of American society. For decades, they have been growing in size and scope. They are attracting an increasing quantity of students, faculty, investment – and attention. Today, they are in a unique position. They are having to work hard to project just the right image, and for that they need to have the right technologies in place – and that includes a Content Management Solution or CMS.
A case in point is the University of Washington, one of the fastest growing campuses in the nation. The school’s Bothell campus, located just north of Seattle, recently completed a major upgrade of its website, as well as the CMS platform that runs it.
“When I arrived here seven years ago,” explained Laura Mansfield, Director of Digital Communications, “we had about 1500 students, and today we have over 6000. We’ve added some 40 new degrees. Every year, we have thousands of visitors to our campus and millions of visitors to our website. So, we’ve undergone some tremendous growth.”
With growth comes growing pains, and the UW Bothell campus was no exception. Although they had a CMS in place to maintain their website, it hadn’t been updated in a number of years. And that was causing them some angst.
Emergence of CMS technology at UW Bothell Campus
“Bringing CMS to our campus in the first place was key,” noted Russell Burns, Senior Web Developer. It brought with it a number of capabilities including:

  • Providing 200+ contributors with editing capabilities while still maintaining the overall look and feel by using templates
  • Retiring a number of “mini applications” and legacy customizations which had made certain abilities possible before the introduction of a CMS
  • Taking full advantage of more out-of-the-box CMS capabilities and thereby requiring a lot less custom work
  • Delivering a granular permission structure which allowed overall system control from a central location while at the same time supporting contributors in a very decentralized environment
“A granular permission structure was very hard to find among the hundreds of CMS systems that we looked at,” pointed out Burns. “It turned out to be a defining difference for us.”
He continued, “Organizations want to have a large amount of freedom to get their own message out. In order to give them that yet maintain a unified structure, we had to effectively give them a sandbox. We retained the ability to control the things that we need to control, yet at the same time gave them the capability to get their messages out the way that they wanted to.”
Another thing that made a large impact as CMS became more widely used at the Bothell campus were templates. “From the very beginning, from the first CMS implementation,” observed Jeane Marty, Senior Front-end Software Engineer. “We have kept the templating system simplified, so it’s easy for a school or unit to fall in line very easily.  By locking down the process, we allow them to stay focused on their content.”
Not Staying Current is No Longer an Option
“We have a small team. We’re short staffed,” noted Mansfield. “We found that we were missing important improvements that the CMS vendor was rolling out because we weren’t updating regularly.”
Things had to change, because as Mansfield noted, “The website is the single most important communications tool that we have. It plays a role in almost everything that we do, from attracting faculty, students, and parents to crisis communications. It serves every purpose for the university.”
Different Constituencies have Different Information Needs
“We have a lot of information that we need to put out there,” observed Mansfield. “Obviously, students need information about their classes, about the professors who will be teaching them, about events taking place on campus, and about tuition. Our faculty have different needs. They want to connect with one another so that they can collaborate on research. They want to show the university in the best light possible so that they can compete for grants. And we know that the third most important constituency we have to worry about are students looking for jobs. We need to make a strong statement that we are connecting students with potential employers.”
Mobile Strategy a part of the Solution
“We’re designing a website that can be displayed on any device,” observed Mansfield, “Some of the more complex transactions, most universities don’t offer them yet.  Like scheduling classes online – that’s really hard to do on a phone. That being said, data tells us that today most people come to the website from a desktop computer. But clearly, to be competitive, we have to have a mobile site.”
“Students want to accomplish virtually everything from a mobile device,” confirmed Sue Mokhtarnejad, Director of Enterprise Strategies. “Over the next few years, I think you’ll see the trend in website visitors moving noticeably towards mobile.”
The Website is the Focal Point...
“The website is our most important marketing tool and it’s our most important communications tool. It’s where current students, prospective students, their parents, our donors, our supporters – it’s where our community finds us.” That impression is backed up by the numbers. “The traffic on the site,” reported Marty, “is around 5000 unique page views per day. In addition, there are 500+ PDFs plus YouTube videos, which are embedded into the site.”
...But the Cloud Certainly Lends a Helping Hand
As part of its upgrade effort, UW Bothell has not only upgraded its CMS and made extensive improvements to the website, but also moved the site to the cloud. “I can’t speak for industry, but I think that the cloud is where most universities are going,” reported Mansfield. “It’s cheaper and it relieves a lot of the IT burden – we don’t have to have as many people maintaining servers and that kind of thing. The CMS is also much faster because it’s in the cloud now. Editing was once a painful process, and now it’s much faster.”
“We’re also in a place where we lose power a lot,” she continued. “And we used to have to scramble. But now that it’s in the cloud, we have a great deal of redundancy in place. So, I can sleep better at night.”

The Right People and the Right Technology Make It all Work
Marketing and IT teams sometimes find themselves working at odds. But that’s not the case at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.
“We talk to our IT colleagues constantly through Slack or instant messaging,” explained Mansfield. Plus, we’ll walk over every week and have a meeting.”
Sue Mokhtarnejad, UW Bothell Director of Enterprise Strategies, also talked about the importance of Marketing and IT working together. But as a technologist, it’s the software that has her captivated at the moment. “I’m a Microsoft person, so I hang around with a lot of IT people like myself. And I have to tell you that there are not that many .Net based CMS systems out there that I have seen work this well.”
Future Looks Bright for UW Bothell
So how does the future look for this Washington-based university? Bright and getting brighter.
“In terms of our long-term strategy,” Mansfield concluded, “now that we have gotten rid of most of our legacy code and upgraded to the most current version of our CMS, future upgrades will be easier.”
Mokhtarnejad, her IT counterpart, couldn’t agree more. “I feel that we have selected a platform that is future-proof, that offers a lot of scalability, and that allows us to be agile to the business need.”
Advice for other Universities
When asked if they had any words of advice or wisdom for other colleges and universities who find themselves in a similar situation, here’s what the UW Bothell team had to say.

Watch the full 9-minute interview with the UW Bothell’s Marketing and IT staff at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxjCevkbPYA&feature=youtu.be
“Schools and universities have budgetary issues, so you want to get the most that you can for the money,” advised Mokhtarnejad. “My advice would be to look for a CMS product that is scalable, easy to maintain, based on the latest best practices, and look for a vendor that offers great technical support.” 
Added Mansfield, “We’re very under-resourced, as most of your readers will be. So, I would say if there’s an outstanding upgrade that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. It’s not going to get any easier. Again, we’ve been in this compelling situation where we’ve been growing so quickly that we haven’t upgraded our infrastructure as quickly as we needed to. So, I would say, don’t wait – do it.”


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